Sorry for the cheesy movie reference title … I couldn’t help it!
For the CNY bank holiday, the boy and I decided to take a little trip out of the Lion City, and explore a bit more of South East Asia. Will had already been to Vietnam once before, on his gap year. Needless to say, some things had no doubt changed, so with our flights to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon (will someone please tell me what I should call it?!) booked, off we went to explore.
We arrived in Vietnam after just a short flight (it’s just 2 hours from Singapore) and then hopped straight into a cab to our hotel. We stayed at the Cinnamon Hotel which I’d really recommend. We had a beautiful room, delicious breakfasts, and the staff were super helpful and friendly, despite having to work over the Tet holiday (the Vietnamese equivalent of CNY). We also booked our trip down the Mekong through them, and were delighted with that too. The hotel is nice and central; just a short walk to most of the main sights in the city.
After a good snooze and breakfast, we headed to the Reunification Palace. The Reunification Palace was the workplace of the President of South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War, during the fall of Saigon, when a North Vietnamese tank was crashed through its gates. It is quite an imposing building, although I wouldn’t say it was beautiful. There are replica tanks in the grounds, along with the details of the Vietnamese soldiers who were involved in the attack on the palace.
The building is carefully preserved, and its easy to imagine what it would have been like during the war, with the rooms left just as they would have been during the war. We enjoyed walking around, admiring all the artifacts. It is a real time capsule in there. Bits of it reminded me of the Churchill War Rooms in London – especially the bits in the basement – lots of long, concrete corridors, with small offices and lots of maps, telephones, and other communication equipment.
It was fascinating to walk around and to explore the history of the building. I think it is great how it has been preserved so that you can really imagine it full of military and government personal walking around in the 1970’s. I also enjoyed standing on the balcony at the front of the building, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to watch the tanks breaking through the gates, and knowing your world was going to change forever.
After exploring the Reunification Palace, we headed out of the city to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were used by the Vietnamese guerrillas, in their fight against the Americans during the Vietnam war, allowing them to outwit the American troops, as well as supplying the guerrilla fighters with hiding places, food, supplies and communications. The tunnels are believed to have been instrumental in the eventual victory over the Americans.
Let’s get one thing straight – the tunnels are tiny! Most of them have been widened so that ‘large’ Western tourists can explore them! See the below photos for a couple of people in our group getting into one of the tiny entrances to see what I mean!
The tour starts with a video, which is in shaky black and white footage, where you learn all about the brave Vietnamese and the despicable American soldiers – it is very much Vietnamese anti-American propaganda, and I think its important you recognise it as such. However, it is an interesting insight into the national psyche and attitudes towards the war. We then joined our guide who took us around the tunnel complex. Most of the things to see are above ground – you see the breathing holes that they cleverly disguised as big termite mounds round the bottom of trees – the had small holes hidden in them where the guerrillas could go to so they could get fresh air. There are countless entrances and exits, all very small, and disguised underneath the leaf mulch, rendering them completely invisible, unless you knew where to look. The Vietnamese not only used the tunnels – they also laid traps for the Americans, such as digging pits with sharpened, hardened bamboo spikes in them, which would ensure that their enemy slowly bled to death, after being impaled.
The experience was brilliant – you learnt so much about how the Vietnamese lived and worked in the tunnels, and how they used old unexploded shells and bomb casings to make their own weapons and traps. You have to admire the ingenuity! The actual part where you crawl through the tunnels was short. The tunnels are smooth (or at least the ones you can crawl through) and dry. I’m not exactly tall but I found it hard going – you are bent over the entire time and its tough on the thighs! As I was crouching along the tunnels, I felt real admiration for the Vietnamese who lived day in day out in these tunnels, whilst the threat from the Americans was all around them. I was astonished that more of them didn’t get lost in the tunnels, as they are completely pitch black once your guide turns a corner and leaves you without torchlight!
It was a brilliant day, learning all about the history of the area, and the people who lived there. Before we went, I must confess to not knowing masses about the Vietnam War – I knew bits and pieces but my understanding was shaky at best. It was an eye-opening and enlightening experience.
I’ll post more about the rest of the trip over the next few days!